[ the following essay first appeared in fantastic monsters, an anthology 'zine edited by caitlin m., which debuted at the 2010 mocca art fest. you know, in case you were wondering what all the capital letters were for. ]
The courtroom is colder than it was outside, but at least it’s also drier. Soles squeak against the linoleum, resoundingly but a-rhythmically, no matter how one tries to count it out. (Still, who can help but try; it’s an alluring but un-winnable game, a puzzle that can’t be decrypted.) Watches are checked aggressively, proactively: forty-three minutes. Longer, it is noted, than the Feldman jury took, but that, of course, was a once-in-a-career victory. The time elapsed is still less than most consensuses require.
The codefendants try not to look at one another, not to like each other in plain sight. A wispy, approachably attractive woman with long white hair and a colorful jumper wishes them “good luck” as she passes. The paragraphs below her byline in the morning’s Post, however, cast some doubt on the sincerity of the wish. The aging beatnik from The Law Reporter makes no such pretenses; he walks directly toward the D.A. to begin their symbiotic schmooze. The fellow from The Times, universally praised for his refreshing even-handedness, doesn’t seem to be in attendance, but the gadfly blogger is exhaustingly present.
○ The jury, a paralegal tells us, has produced a note: exhibits in evidence have been requested. Counselors resume huddle formations and float theories as to what line of deliberation might manifest itself as such an epistle.
“This,” my grandfather tells me, “is what they call reading the tea leaves.” Despite his immediate peril, he cannot help but be excited at the quality of the civics lesson I’m receiving. “Usually,” he cautions, “they’re just tea leaves.”
But then, there isn’t much else to do. Grandpa goes on to outline several possible scenarios. The grim subject matter notwithstanding, I find our conversation comforting; maybe it’s good that I’m here.
○ “Do you want us to come tomorrow,” I’d asked yesterday in a family huddle between summations.
“Well, it’s not me,” Grandpa corrected for the record, “it’s Hafitz.” This was true: Hafitz had stressed repeatedly how important it was that the jury see family in the gallery.
“Of course,” we joked, “it’s Hafitz. You don’t even want us here.”
“No, no,” Grandpa assured us, “I don’t mind at all.”
○ “Kenan,” Grandpa would call out across the dining room table. I’d look up from my Haggadah, trying not to look nervous. “Who won his third M.V.P. award in 1962?”
For my ninth birthday, in response to both my extreme enthusiasm and lack of aptitude for our nation’s pastime, my grandfather had bought me a 1,200 page hardcover compendium of baseball statistics. Six months later, it was assumed that I’d have committed at least its most consequential data to memory.
My sister had it harder; her musical precocity had earned her an always-growing stack of “original cast recordings,” of which she was expected to reproduce both the scores and the liner notes.
These pop-quizzes were a source of baffled amusement to us grandchildren, but merely an annoyance to our parents, who still, in middle-age, found themselves reciting The Rime of the Ancient Mariner around the dinner table. I was in my early twenties, living in my grandfather’s attic while trying to figure out what one did with a B.A. in film studies, when I finally discovered their origin.
Over breakfast in Flatbush’s finest diner, Grandpa indulged in a rare moment of reminiscence about how vehemently his father had stressed the importance of academics. “You have to learn as much as you can about everything,” he would insist. “Because when they come for you in the night and break down your door– and believe me, they will– the only thing they can’t take from you is what you’ve got in your head.”
The tests and puzzles and games, I learned, were just my grandfather’s way of saying “hey, kid, I don’t mind you at all.”
○ I catch myself again assigning meters to undisciplined footfalls. At least it keeps my mind off other, equally inscrutable mathematical quandaries. What, for example, is “a lifetime” – (“82 years old” + “up to four years”)?
The next note requests a transcript of some testimony from our favorite witness. This cuts to the heart of the case, the lawyers agree; it would seem some of the jurors were awake at some point. The freelance journalist, we suspect, and perhaps the broadcast news producer. Really, it couldn’t have been any of the others.
“The people” and the defense form their respective phalanxes and begin to bicker over exactly which lines of transcript should be included. The process does not go smoothly, and the judge calls the court to order. Counsel approaches the bench, and the inevitable symphony of unintelligible murmurs ensues.
“Does it drive you crazy,” I wonder, “not to be able to join the huddle?” Grandpa is, after all, accustomed to life on the other side of the client/attorney relationship. He must surely feel his own counsel would be valuable. “It’s horrible,” he whispers, in the closest approximation of an emotional outburst I have ever seen from him.
○ The matter is settled and the solution entered into the record. The judge exits and the factions disperse, and at last we are free to resume our business. Not, of course, the business we were about before they came to his door at dawn, thirteen months ago, before he’d had time to dress or don his glasses. Just this morning’s business: “5-across,” I propose, “is probably ‘ONCE’,” since it’s hard to imagine another four-letter “bedtime story preceder.”
“I thought so, too,” he consoles, “but I’m pretty sure the National Institutes of Health are in ‘BETHESDA.’ Which would make 5-across ‘BATH.’ The Wednesday puzzle is no match for my Grandpa.